Hostilities by Grumpy Ghost Owl

A rewrite of the BotP Episode, Ace From Outer Space. This is an answer to the 'rewrite a silly episode so that it makes sense' challenge. G-Force are just starting to hit their stride as a team and Galaxy Security is a dog's breakfast in a colander: very messy and full of leaks. There'll be tears before bedtime, mark my words.

This story forms part of the BotP: 2163 series. Click on the series link below to view the recommended reading order.

Categories: Battle of the Planets Characters: 7-Zark-7/1-Rover-1/Susan, Chief Anderson, Keyop, Mala/S-9, Mark, Original Character, Other Canon Character, Phoenix/God Phoenix, Princess, Tiny Harper, Zoltar
Genre: Action/Adventure
Story Warnings: Adult Situations, Death, Drug Use, Mild Language, Suicide, Violence
Timeframe: Episode Rewrite
Universe: Mostly Canon
Challenges: Rewrite a silly episode to make more sense
Challenges: Rewrite a silly episode to make more sense
Series: Battle of the Planets: 2163
Chapters: 3 Completed: Yes Word count: 16897 Read: 5722 Published: 05/22/2007 Updated: 05/23/2007
Story Notes:
G-Force acquires a new enemy: the space pirate, Captain Doom.

1. A New Enemy by Grumpy Ghost Owl

2. I'm fine. by Grumpy Ghost Owl

3. An appropriate level of response by Grumpy Ghost Owl

A New Enemy by Grumpy Ghost Owl
Author's Notes:
Zark has designed a new star ship, the XF-97, and of all the pilots in the Federation, Mark has been chosen to test fly it at a big air show. Unbenknownst to G-Force, however, a new enemy from a distant planet is planning to make his presence felt on Earth.

This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.

Thanks to Catherine Rees-Lay for beta reading. Thanks to Sharon Alvarado for technical advice on the properties of metals and the Modified Moh's Scale.

Battle of the Planets: 2163

"Earth?" Ven Arish didn't try to conceal his surprise. "My boy, is this wise?" Nested in a large, well upholstered armchair, the Provincial Governor took a deep draught of wine from his silver goblet. "Earth has successfully repelled all of Zoltar's invasion attempts to date. Even with your new weapon, dare you hope to overcome G-Force?"

"Earth is not as impregnable a fortress as it looks, Arish," Captain Doom declared from the other chair in the Governor's private study. "The ISO is weak and Galaxy Security in particular has overreached itself. Their new Chief of Staff is so busy fretting after G-Force, he lets gaping holes in Earth's defences go unstopped."

"The Assembly of Peers will take a great deal of convincing," Arish said.

"Whilst I would prefer to have their support, the Assembly has no power of veto over me," Doom said. "I am, after all, a privateer."

"Ishmael," Arish used the name by which Urgos' most feared pirate was known to such friends as he had, "I fear your motivation for this venture is personal."

"Of course it is," Doom said. His face behind the death's head mask was unreadable, but there was strain in his voice. "Earth is the planet where I was born. Far better that it should fall to me than to Zoltar. Urgos will gain from it -- mark my words, Arish, this will be Urgos' greatest achievement -- but Earth will also benefit. I won't enslave her people! I won't strip her of all her resources and leave her a ruined husk of a world! Earth will become a client of Urgos and a new era will begin. The success of this plan will mean the best possible outcome for both planets. You must believe me. I would never betray Urgos. Your crew took me in after Galaxy Security gave me up for dead. My family is here. Earth is where I was born but Urgos is where I was re-born."

"The Federation will not share your sentiment," Arish predicted.

"I do not plan on consulting the Federation."

"You will meet with resistance," Arish said. "Be certain that your desire for vengeance does not cloud your reasoning."

"Any vengeance I take will be my business. My judgement is clear. I will make a decisive first strike on Earth while Zoltar regroups his forces after his next attack. Neither Earth nor Spectra will be expecting us to move. I will attack quickly and present my terms before Zoltar can take advantage of the situation. Spectra can still have a share of Earth's resources but Zoltar will have to deal with me to get what he wants."

"You run a terrible risk, my boy," Arish warned. "Lord Zoltar is a formidable enemy."

"I know it," Doom said. "The greatest prize always carries the greatest risk. You taught me that when I was a deck hand."

"And now you would be the conquerer of Earth," Arish sighed. "Had I known of your ambition when I found you, I might have feared you. It was fortunate for Urgos that I took you on all those years ago. You have become an asset to us."

"But you fear that I overstep my bounds," Doom concluded.

"I do," Arish said.

"I am determined to succeed, Arish," Doom said. "I will go ahead with or without your support in the Assembly."

"You have it," Arish said. "I will address the Peers." The Governor drained his cup and stood up. "Come, now. Enough of business. The women will be wondering where we are and I want to hear all about this young man my god-daughter is so fond of. Have Jahno's parents said anything, yet?"

"Jahno's mother has been speaking with Tierna," Doom said. "I have yet to hear from them, formally. Elenie is so young, Arish!"

"She is fifteen!" Arish said. "That's old enough for a betrothal. It isn't as though they'll be handfast tomorrow. You can set the length of the engagement up to nine years if you want. What are you worried about?"

"That the heart of a young girl can be fickle," Doom sighed. "What if she changes her mind and then blames me for making her keep to the handfasting vows?"

"Now you are talking like an Earthling," Arish said. "Urgosian girls aren't like that, and Elenie takes after her mother."

"How fortunate," Doom said wryly, "that she doesn't take after me."

"I don't like this, Aida," David Anderson said, addressing the tele-comm.

"Neither do I, David," Space Admiral Aida Nagarajan's image said from the screen. "The XF-97 Scout was supposed to roll out of the hangar four weeks ago, and before you start telling me that my engineers didn't work to schedule, I remind you that it was your designer that kept sending alterations to the spec!"

"I know," Anderson sighed. "I'm aware that the delay is Galaxy Security's responsibility, and I'm prepared to take the flack for pulling the XF-97 from the air show."

"Oh, no you don't," Nagarajan said. "Showcasing the XF-97 is not negotiable. In addition to several influential members of the Federal Appropriations Committee, the Vice President's going to be there. I don't want any of them on my case and neither do you. The Scout flies, and your boy flies it! You keep telling me he's the best test pilot since his father, and this is important, David -- IM-POR-TANT -- with capitals. You're not worming your way out of this." Nagarajan's index finger stabbed at a control and the image vanished.

"That'd better be the final modification," Mark said as he worked his way through his downwind checks for what seemed like the hundredth time. There were three thuds as the undercarriage locked into place and three green lights lit up on the instrument panel. "Down and locked. Three greens. The human brain can only handle so much, Zark."

"Sorry, Commander," the robot said, managing to sound contrite. "I just keep coming up with newer and better ideas for this new starship! And what better time to implement them than while the machine is still in the hangar? Besides, these last seven have only been software changes."

"But in the last six hours? Zark, buddy, give me a chance to catch up, here!"

"The changes are only minor," Zark insisted. "The simulator logs indicate that you're doing extremely well," he added in an attempt at providing some of the positive reinforcement he'd heard humans liked.

"Right," Mark drawled. "X-Ray Foxtrot Niner Seven, downwind for a full stop."

"X-Ray Foxtrot Niner Seven," Zark replied. "You're a little wide, you know."

"Am not," Mark said.

"I assure you, my sensors indicate --"

"Who's flying this thing, you or me?"

"You are, Commander."

"Then pipe down and let me fly it."

"Of course. Sorry. You're within tolerances, of course, it's just that practice makes perfect."

Mark eased back on his fuel flow and listened to the turbine winding down. "You see, Zark?" he couldn't resist saying. "She wants to stay in the air, that's why I need the extra distance on base let-down."

"You could compensate with flaps," Zark pointed out.


"Sorry, Commander."

Mark activated the flaps and pushed the nose down as both lift and drag increased. He was a little late with them, he knew, but his ego had a point to make. He turned on to final approach. "X-Ray Foxtrot Niner Seven, permission to land?"

"X-Ray Foxtrot Niner Seven, you are clear to land," Zark said. "You're a little high."

"Cool it, Zark." Mark dropped the flaps to full extension, eased the nose down and aimed along the tarmac. The wheels hit with an appreciable jolt and a screech of rubber. Mark taxied to a full stop and ran through his checks before shutting the engine down.

The simulation terminated. The canopy went blue and a series of clunking noises preceded it being slid back. Mark pushed himself up to perch on the back of his seat to look out over the simulator chamber. Anderson was standing at the base of the gantry below where the port wing would have been on the real XF-97 Scout. "How did it go?" Anderson called.

"Zark's a back seat driver," Mark grumbled.

"Apart from that?"

Mark pulled his helmet from his head and ruffled out his dark, unruly mop of hair. "It's a nice machine. Just so long as this is the last software upgrade."

"I noticed you were a little high on approach," Anderson remarked as Mark clambered out of the simulator cockpit.

"I was having a debate with my unofficial co-pilot," Mark said.

"I see." Anderson stepped away from the gantry and Mark leapt from the ladder to land lightly next to his mentor. "I'll order him not to bother you on any of the real flights," Anderson said.

"He means well, I guess," Mark sighed.

"Mark, I can't stress how important it is that you impress the members of the Appropriations Committee with this new ship," Anderson said. "The Patrol's in need of a fleet upgrade and the ISO Council feels that we're far safer going with something we've developed and built ourselves rather than taking the risk with something off the shelf. We can't prove that Spectra's infiltrated several of the biggest defence contractors, but Counter Intelligence have their doubts about the integrity of some of the major players."

"And doubts aren't enough to act on," Mark concluded.

"Not yet," Anderson said.

"So, when does the real XF-97 roll off the hangar floor?" Mark asked.

"Tomorrow morning," Anderson said. "I'm afraid your first flight's going to be the deadhead from Seahorse Base, then you'll be in the full glare of the public eye."

"I can handle it," Mark said, "just as long as there are no more software upgrades."

"I'll make certain of it," Anderson promised.

"Will I ever play the violin again, doctor?" Princess asked, giving Dr Robert Halloran a wide eyed look from where she lay prone on the examination table in the Cerebonic Lab.

"Sure, if you take lessons," Bob Halloran parried with a smile. "Just don't take them anywhere near me," he added. "Stick to the guitar, okay?"

Princess sat up, a little too quickly as it turned out. "Whoa," she said as the room seemed to spin around her.

"Hey, take it easy," Halloran cautioned belatedly. He held out a hand to steady her. An affable neurosurgeon and a collaborator of Chief Anderson's from college days, Bob Halloran had been involved with G-Force from the project's inception. He and his wife Kate, who served as Galaxy Security's Chief Medical Officer, treated all five young fighters as though they were part of their own brood of children. "Your cerebonic recalibration's looking good, but I still want you to rest for four hours, then you're on restricted activity. You'll be back to full fitness by tomorrow evening, and don't go overdoing it."

"Okay, Dr Bob," Princess said. She accepted the glass of water Halloran offered her. "Is it all right if I chill out in the ready room?"

"As long as you aren't trying to dance a hole in the floor, young lady," Halloran said. "And eat something, or Kate'll have my hide."

"I'll be good," Princess said, grinning. "I wouldn't want to get you in trouble with Dr Kate."

"Glad to hear it. Now take your supplement," he handed her a large white capsule, "and go relax for a while."

"Big ten," Princess agreed. She swallowed the capsule, finished the water and got down off the examination table. There was no dizziness accompanying the movement and she smiled. She left the glass on the countertop and walked at a leisurely pace to the shuttle bay where she caught a transport to take her from Science Center to Center Neptune on the other side of the coral reef.

Jason was in the G-Force Ready Room, reading intelligence bulletins. "How're you doing?" he asked without looking up.

"I'm fine," Princess said. She selected her acoustic guitar from its rack and settled into a chair with it. She checked the tuning, then began picking out a few simple lines of melody.

"My last recalibration, I had a headache for three days," Jason recalled.

"I'm not you," Princess said without rancour.

"It affects us all in different ways," Jason agreed. "Shouldn't you be eating something? You know how recalibration burns up our energy stores. You want me to send down for a protein shake?"

"I'll grab something later. I'm on down time for four hours and then I'm on restricted duty until tomorrow," Princess said. She let her right hand rest in the curve of the guitar. "Jase, I'm fine, okay?"

"Okay." Jason turned his attention back to his reading material.

"We're not scheduled for duty until tomorrow, anyway," Princess said. "All we're doing is our usual fly-past, then we get to watch Mark fly that new starship of Zark's."

"I wish he'd stop referring to it as a 'starship,'" Jason grumbled. "It's an interceptor."

"It's capable of short-range time warp," Princess said. "That qualifies it as a starship, even if it doesn't look the part."

"I guess."

"You're just jealous."

"Of Zark? Hardly."

"No, silly, you're jealous of Mark because he got picked to fly the XF-97 Scout."

"Instead of me?" Jason laughed. "I'm not a fighter pilot, remember? You're starting to sound like Zark. You sure that recalibration went okay?"

"Very funny, Jason." Princess set her guitar to one side, got up and made her way to the refrigerator. She opened it and selected a bottle of Gatorade. "I'll be good." She flourished the bottle as she closed the refrigerator door with her other hand. "See? Fluids and electrolytes."

"Works for me," Jason said absently. "You want these when I'm done with them?" He waved a piece of paper.

"Sure." Princess flopped into the chair next to the one Jason was occupying. "Pass me over the ones you've read already."

"I guess we're as ready as we'll ever be," Mark said. He cast a glance out over the crowded airfield. A mix of commercial and military air and space craft were parked on the hard stand and the field was swarming with people eager to see the latest the industry had to offer. He had flown the XF-97 Scout in with a fighter escort at first light, and she was now waiting in her hangar downstairs, under guard. Zark had complied with Anderson's orders to cease and desist his constant upgrading of the Scout's operating software and was producing an ever lengthening list of items for the next build.

"It's all up to you, now, Mark," Anderson said.

"I won't let you down, Chief," Mark said. He grinned and ran for the stairs.

"If only the same could be said for the bean counters," Anderson muttered under his breath. He hurried away to the corporate observation lounge where Admiral Nagarajan was riding shotgun on the politicians.

The air show sponsors, Nebula Aerospace, had provided plush surroundings and top of the range catering in the corporate lounge. Aida Nagarajan didn't appear to be indulging in the champagne or the canapes, however. "David, there you are!" she beckoned Anderson over to her side. "The Vice President seems to be on board, thank heavens, and Councillor Severin's making favourable noises, but Councillor Xiao keeps going on about 'fiscal responsibility' and Councillor Veren's just vaccillating."

"Vaccillating is what Veren does best," Anderson said. "Relax, Aida. Have a drink or something. Adam Veren always follows Danny Xiao's lead and Xiao invariably goes with the main political chance. Get Julia D'Castro enthused and you're pretty much there."

"Politics!" Nagarajan sighed. "I hate politics!"

"Don't we all?" Anderson confided. "Chin up. Smile. That's it."

Nagarajan gave her colleague a look of distaste. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, is that it?" she asked.

"I'd prefer a fly swat," Anderson told her, made out of a length of two by four, with a nail in it, for these flies... "but you know as well as I do that we have to play the game."

Over by the enormous window, Julia D'Castro, Vice President of the Intergalactic Federation of Peaceful Planets, stood drawing patterns with one finger in the condensation on the outside of her lemonade glass. She wasn't paying much attention to Councillor Ross-Darkan of Vega, but kept staring out at the tarmac.

"Forgive me for interrupting," Anderson said, approaching them, "but the XF-97's about to taxi out. Madame Vice President, Councillor, I'm sure you'll want to see the demonstration."

"And you'd like to gloat," D'Castro quipped, smiling.

"I'd never do that, Madame Vice President," Anderson said.

"I would, in your place," D'Castro said. "If my son had beaten out every other pilot in the ISO to fly this bird, I'd be broadcasting it from the rooftops... and possibly playing it for political points, too," she added wryly.

"From what I hear, Flight Lieutenant D'Castro's a fine pilot," Anderson said. "Admiral Nagarajan tells me he was commended last month."

"Yes." The Vice Presidential smile was shadowed by motherly concern. "You were right about Spectra. I just hope your projections about the duration of this war were overstated."

"As do I." Anderson dared to offer a sympathetic smile. "I honestly wish I could be wrong about these things more often."

"No." D'Castro had recovered her politician's poise. "No, I think we'll keep you as you are, David. Is that the Scout I see down there?"

Anderson's reply died on his lips as his palm unit sounded, heralding an incoming priority call from Nerve Center. "Excuse me." He moved away and answered the call on the tiny hand held computer unit. "Anderson."

"I'm sorry to bother you with what's surely a trivial matter, Chief Anderson," 7-Zark-7's synthesised voice said, "but you approved the procedure last month, that I should notify you of all unidentified and unscheduled incoming space traffic."

"Go ahead."

"My sensors have detected what appears to be an old fashioned biplane on its way inbound for Earth, currently transecting the orbital plane of Planet Neptune. Susan at the Early Warning Station on Planet Pluto has voiced some concerns, however I feel certain that with the big air show on today --"

"What kind of concerns?" Anderson interrupted.

"The ship's course puts its point of origin as Planet Urgos --"

"That qualifies as a concern," Anderson said, and closed the channel. He dialled another code from memory. "Princess, are the others with you?" He listened for the reply. "I want the four of you up here, right away."

The XF-97 Scout flew just like the XF-97 Scout simulator, with the added thrill of reality. Mark put the Scout through a performance take-off and had the wheels up and locked before was fifty feet above the runway. As he trimmed the Scout for climb, he could see people waving and cheering below. He resisted the urge to wave back and focussed instead on his flying. Nice as it was, public adulation wasn't important. What mattered was what the politicians saw and thought. He kept the circuit fast and tight, then lined up for his first fly-past.

Flanked by her team-mates, Princess stood on the balcony outside the observation lounge.

"Chief... worry wart," Keyop said, leaning on the safety railing and gazing out over the airfield.

"I wouldn't have his job for all the spaceburgers in the galaxy!" Tiny declared. "Speaking of which, did anyone think to grab any of those appetisers from the buffet in the observation lounge?"

"You can eat, later," Jason said, his eyes fixed on the XF-97 Scout, which was executing an aileron roll.

"Nice flying," Princess murmured.

"Expect anything less?" Jason asked her.

"Course not," Princess said. She blinked, slowly, as though tired.

"You want me to go get you some water?" Jason asked softly.

"I'm fine," she said. "Recalibrations don't bother me."

"If you say so," Jason said.

"Commander," Zark's voice sounded over Mark's communicator, "there's an unidentified aircraft entering the restricted zone. I'm sure it's nothing to worry about, but Chief Anderson seems to think there could be a problem. You'll be pleased to know that he's briefed the rest of the G-Force team and that they're standing by to provide backup if you need it. Climb to one thousand five hundred feet and turn onto vector two three zero to intercept. Observe only. Do not engage unless authorised."

"Big ten, Zark," Mark replied. "Heading two three zero and climbing to one thousand five hundred."

Aida Nagarajan hurried to David Anderson's side. "What's going on?" she whispered.

"We have a visitor," Anderson told her. "The Scout's on an intercept course to take a look."

"Is that wise?" Nagarajan asked.

"Zark's analysis suggests that it's only one small aircraft, and the Scout's already in the air," Anderson reasoned. "It'd take too long to get anyone else up there, and I don't want to spark any unnecessary incidents."

The man who styled himself Captain Doom chuckled. Tierna hadn't liked this plan, and neither had Demmish, but Doom had overridden the objections of both his formidable wife and his respected First Mate. It had to be showy, he'd insisted. It had to be flashy. It had to have flair. Doom had built a reputation as much out of showmanship as he had from tactics and firepower. A frightened enemy was already at a disadvantage long before the first shot was fired and Doom played the fear factor for all it was worth. Fear kept profits up and losses down. A quick surrender saved casualties on both sides and part of Doom's reputation was for granting mercy when his victims complied with his demands. It was good for business.

Tierna had outdone herself with this ship. She had researched Earth history and come up with the biplane concept. From there, since she had no wish to become a widow (a line she had repeated several times while berating her husband for his recklessness in undertaking this 'insane enterprise' as she put it) she had built in layer upon layer of safety devices. Doom stood atop the craft, the rush of wind barely constituting a stiff breeze thanks to his personal force field, boots locked in position with powerful electromagnets. He adjusted the ship's course with subtle movements of his fingers in the delicately calibrated control gloves, reading the head-up display inside the death's-head mask.

This was going to be good.

Doom could imagine the initial reaction from the public attending the air show: they'd think it was some kind of stunt and they'd train their cameras on him in anticipation of some new spectacle. Some of them might recognise him and that might start a panic. Those in authority would react with disbelief and suspicion. Someone there would definitely recognise him. There would be a brief, frantic flurry of speculative analysis. Security Chief Anderson would probably not order him shot down. Doom's arrival would constitute a puzzle, and David Anderson could never resist a puzzle. No, Chief Anderson -- as long as his will prevailed among his ISO colleagues (and by all accounts, this would most likely be the case) -- would order the intruder intercepted and brought in, rather than destroyed at the outset, and this would be his undoing. All that credibility you've worked so hard to build up since the last time I saw you, Davey boy... it's going to suffer a setback today! You wrote me off and left me for dead. Now we'll have a reckoning, and you'll finally have to admit that I'm the better one.

Ahead of him, a small interceptor aircraft was closing. Let the entertainment begin!

Doom readied himself. The optical interface in his mask zoomed in on his opponent, revealing a human pilot in the cockpit. At least they hadn't insulted him by sending a robot pilot or a remotely controlled drone. He wouldn't kill this one, he mused, smiling to himself behind the mask. He'd teach him a lesson and let him live to tell the tale of Captain Doom and his invincible biplane. Doom flexed the fingers of his left hand and in response, the weapon ports opened to release Tierna's new weapon. Urgosium alloy was unique, and the Earthlings were about to find out just how innovative Urgosian engineering could be. Long, articulated metal whips snaked out of the wing ports.

The pilot of the interceptor was on a collision course with Doom's biplane, flying straight and level like a student in a flight test. Doom grinned. So, it was to be a game of chicken! I make the rules in this game, my friend. The biplane's computer predicted a collision in less than two seconds. It would probably be survivable if the ship's force fields were activated and set to maximum intensity with forward augmentation.

But it wouldn't have to come to that. Doom took a breath and activated the whips as he increased pitch and thrust on the biplane.

The biplane leapt like a steeplechaser and silky metal hissed out and down. The whips sheared through the wings on the interceptor, which fell like a stone toward the ocean. Doom looked back over one shoulder and laughed. Too easy.

A parachute blossomed, flower-like, and slowly settled onto the water. And no doubt the story will get better with each telling, Doom predicted. It was a pity, he decided, that he couldn't see the expressions on the faces of the ISO Chiefs of Staff, right now. That'll teach you to leave loose ends lying around. Doom grimaced. So much for the sideshow. Now for the main event! He turned on to a heading that would take him directly over the air field, and prepared to attack.

Panic, Anderson realised with dismay, would kill people today. His view was limited to the small screen in his palm unit, adding another stone to the edifice of his indignation. On it, he could see the crowd surging as instinct took over and the people became a mob of terrified, unthinking creatures, fleeing for their lives. One of the officers from the Vice President's detail was currently standing on a chair, fiddling with the inoperative tele-comm screen in the bomb shelter. His efforts didn't appear to be producing any results, thus far.

The people outside had good reason to run. Captain Doom was casually destroying the aircraft on the field with his outlandish whip weapons. Flames boiled up from ruptured fuel tanks, tainted with black, oily smoke. Smouldering debris littered the tarmac. Beside him, glaring at the shifting images on her own palm unit, Aida Nagarajan stifled a low growl of distress and anger.

"This is a disaster," Nagarajan said.

"G-Force should be airborne within a couple of minutes," Anderson said.

"Look at him," Nagarajan said. "He's destroying every aircraft on the field. Those whip weapons are almost surgical."

Julia D'Castro approached. The civilian occupants of the VIP lounge huddled in small, frightened knots, kept away from the ISO chiefs and the Vice President by a polite but uncompromising perimeter of security officers, Anderson's own personal detail among them. "What can you tell me?" D'Castro asked, directing her question to Anderson.

"That we're being toyed with," Anderson growled. "He could have taken out the fuel stores by now. The control tower's still standing. He's laughing at us. He's playing some kind of game!"

Princess ran, blood pounding in her ears. He just sat there! He just sat there and let that alien take him down! Mark! What were you thinking? The G-Force command ship Phoenix loomed above her, blue and red livery gleaming in the low light of the hangar. Princess leapt onto the port wing pod, bounded along the wing and jumped for the dorsal dome. Jason was standing next to it, one hand outstretched. "The others are aboard. Come on!"

They were obliged to wait for the lift to return before stepping onto it and descending into the Phoenix. The command ship began to move almost before the lift had settled, and rolled out into a war zone.

"Get us airborne, Tiny," Jason said, his voice tight. "He's headed this way."

"I see him," Tiny Harper responded, his hands darting across the control panel. "Hold on." He put the Phoenix into a vertical climb as Captain Doom's biplane closed in.

Princess fought against the g-forces of the climb as she worked her console, garnering tactical information from Zark's data feed. "Has anyone heard if Mark's okay?" she asked.

"Yeah," Tiny answered as the Phoenix levelled out. "The Chief raised him a second or two before you got here."

Princess stared at the back of Jason's helmet, waiting for some comment about her being unable to keep up, but none was forthcoming.

"Let's teach this guy some manners," Jason said instead.

Captain Doom watched the Phoenix gain height. There was no rush. He closed in on one last heavy transport and applied the whips. The Urgosium alloy tore through the fragile shell of the aircraft like a knife through rice paper. Now to deal with the much-vaunted G-Force. He allowed himself one last backward glance at the airfield. He could see bodies, and he shook his head at the futility of it. Still, the fear was there, and fear was good.

He was over the ocean again, and the Phoenix was banking around in a slow curve to line up for an attack run. Sunlight glinted off the bright blue fuselage and sparkled on the waves below. He would let them come and show them just how useless they were against him. He wouldn't destroy them, though. Not yet, anyway. Defeat, yes. Demoralise, yes, but not destroy, not unless it became unavoidable. The differences between Urgos and Spectra had to be observable. Zoltar had promised destruction and conquest. Captain Doom would offer something a little less unpalatable.

A weapons bay door was opening on the ventral surface of the G-Force command ship and an urgent tone in Doom's earpiece told him that he was the subject of a laser targeting system lock. He activated the biplane's defensive force fields and waited. Sure enough, a missile streaked clear of the Phoenix. Despite his confidence in Tierna's team, Doom braced himself. All his systems were in the green.

The explosion was blindingly brilliant, even through the mask and closed eyes. The biplane shuddered, but continued on its course. Another missile, and the force field held. "Now it's my turn," Doom muttered, and shut the external force field off as he called up the whip weapons.

The biplane skimmed over the Phoenix, surfing the airflow, and one whip sheared off the rudder. Doom put the biplane into a climb, and triggered the transformation sequence. The wings of the biplane closed up and the ship converted to its high speed jet configuration. Doom fired the thrusters, leaving the G-Force ship wallowing and disabled in his wake.

Doom relaxed. He would give the ISO time to submit an analysis to President Kane. If the scientific and military minds of the various ISO agencies were as good as they were supposed to be, they'd realise what they were up against, and once they did, Doom would cordially invite them to surrender.

I'm fine. by Grumpy Ghost Owl
Author's Notes:

Earth has been attacked by the space pirate, Captain Doom, from the hostile planet Urgos. Galaxy Security must now analyse Doom's formidable new weapon and plan a counter-strike.

The way the location of the asteroid is expressed is so absurd, it could only be canon, and that's exactly what it is.


This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.

Thanks to Catherine Rees-Lay for beta reading. Thanks to Sharon Alvarado for technical advice on the properties of metals and the Modified Moh's Scale.

Battle of the Planets: 2163

Security Chief Anderson had been up all night. Even under the best of circumstances, Security Chief Anderson wasn't really a morning person.

He never had been. He tended to function best once his brain had taken a run-up and by evening, his thought processes usually had enough momentum to keep running well into the night.

All his adult life, he'd been the type to start working on something in the early evening, lose track of time, forget to eat and eventually fall asleep in his own notes.

When Anderson had been an undergraduate, his room-mate had frequently woken up to find him out like a light at his desk, having fallen asleep in his notes, pen still clutched loosely in one hand.

As a doctoral student, Anderson had run tutorials which became notorious for dragging on for hours if the young scientist was asked a question that he found interesting or challenging. His supervisor had to ask him to stop after the cleaners complained that they couldn't access the classrooms because Anderson's marathon sessions ran on too late.

During his relatively brief stint as a field agent, Anderson had been good at stake-outs. He could stay awake through the small hours, monitoring his target and keeping himself awake by musing on such frivolities as developing a more efficient way of boosting mitochondrial energy output through intranucleotidal nanotechnology.

When he returned to the cerebonic programme at Science Center, Anderson's staff would joke that he never left the lab.

As Chief of Galaxy Security, the workload was such that Anderson had to work late just to keep up. The difference now was that he was working late because he had to, not because he wanted to.

The passion just wasn't there any more.

It had been replaced by anger.

Where Dr Anderson the biophysicist had been driven by his passion for the discovery and development of new technology, Chief Anderson the head of Galaxy Security was driven by a slowly simmering rage against those who would despoil and conquer Earth.

At this particular moment, however, Chief Anderson the head of Galaxy Security was driven by the simple human necessity for sleep. He hadn't resented the night's work, primarily because he hadn't been stuck behind a desk. After returning from the Presidential debriefing and the ISO Council's emergency meeting, he'd caught up with Dr Umzabe, the Director Science Division. He and Bert Umzabe had both tossed their suit jackets over chairs, donned lab coats and worked like any other scientists with the xenomaterials team as they isolated and analysed tiny flakes from the damaged rudder of the Phoenix. The stresses of the day took a back seat to professional curiosity as they'd examined the alien metal extracted from the affronted titanium ceramalloy of the G-Force command ship.

After the team had garnered enough to work with, Anderson had been obliged to return to his office, return calls, read more reports and wait for Umzabe to have the final analyses sent over. When the numbers on the page he was reading had begun to blur into each other in the small hours, Anderson had programmed a wake-up call, kicked his shoes off and stretched his tall frame out on the sofa.

Now, Anderson's eyes opened in response to a soft but insistent chime from the computer. Six forty five, already. The leather upholstery of the sofa creaked softly as he sat up, and the blanket tumbled into a heap at his feet. He frowned. He couldn't remember getting the blanket out. He reached for his glasses, which were on the coffee table, and put them on. The room came back into sharp focus. Anderson grimaced and set about putting on his shoes. Neither rising nor shining really felt like a preferred option at this point in time. Nonetheless, he picked up the blanket and tossed it on the sofa in an untidy rumple as he stood up.

Anderson walked to his desk. He picked up the sheaf of papers he'd left on his blotter and considered the numbers again. The data continued to refrain from offering anything approaching an epiphany. A tap at the doorway heralded the arrival of his security coordinator, who was carrying a coffee mug.

"Morning, sir." Major Jones put the mug down on the coaster next to Anderson's desk blotter. Anderson harboured a suspicion that Major Jones didn't approve of coffee. Empirical evidence suggested that coffee didn't approve of Major Jones. The very beans seemed to take umbrage at whatever it was she inflicted on them in the percolation process and the result was invariably a substance better suited to road surfacing than it was to human consumption. Staff had been known to trip over each other in the rush to ensure that anyone other than Jones made the coffee.

"Thank you, Major," Anderson said without looking up. He was aware of Jones walking across to the sofa and folding the blanket into a neat oblong. Anderson picked up the mug and risked a cautious sniff of its steaming contents: tea. Under the circumstances, it could be argued that good tea was better than bad coffee. Anderson stretched, being careful not to spill the tea, and took a sip. I should spend more time in the lab, he told himself, knowing, even as he articulated the thought, that he probably wouldn't get much chance to do anything of the sort. He ignored Jones as she stowed the blanket in the office closet and left him to ponder the materials data.

Anderson finished his tea and looked at his watch: 07:08. I'm no closer to finding the ball park this stuff came from, let alone an accurate location. What am I missing? He walked to the window and stared at the reef. The fish were up and feeding. The scientists had listed every property they could test for, performed the tests, and come up empty handed. The sample's hardness -- 12.3 on the Modified Moh's Scale -- coupled with its apparent flexibility, made it effectively the indestructible substance of engineering legend.

A flash of silvery movement caught Anderson's eye as the fish on the reef darted in panic from the sleek shape of a shark. No small and slender reef shark, this, but something larger and more menacing from deeper waters: the predator cruised in to view, on the prowl for breakfast. The regular denizens of the reef fled before the intruder.

Of course! Anderson strode back to his desk and lunged for the controls of his comm unit. "Zark, run a comparison of that materials data from the lab with everything you can dig up on asteroids from surveys conducted in the last hundred years. I'm looking for anything that's drifted in from outside the Milky Way."

"It would be my pleasure," Zark acknowledged. "You do realise, sir, that the information is by no means comprehensive or even consistent. A lot of the data in the mineral exploration databases is commercial-in-confidence --"

"I'm authorising you to do it anyway. Out." Anderson stalked out of his office, heading for his quarters in search of a hot shower and a change of clothes.

"Not hungry?" Jason's voice broke into Princess' thoughts -- or lack thereof -- as she poked a spoon into her cereal bowl. The team were seated at their usual table in a quiet corner of the executive ward room for breakfast.

"Huh?" The spoon stopped a couple of centimetres above the cereal, dripping milk.

"You've been mashing those corn flakes for the last five minutes without eating a bite," Jason pointed out.

"I have?" Princess put the spoon back in the bowl and let it lie against the rim. "Guess I'm not hungry. Is there any fresh coffee?"

"I asked you if you wanted coffee ten minutes ago," Jason pointed out.

"What did I say?"

"You said -- and I quote -- 'Mmmpfh.'"

"Oh." Princess frowned. "Was that a yes?"

"You tell me."

Mark swallowed a mouthful of toast. "Cut it out, Jason," he said.

Jason shrugged and turned his attention back to his shredded wheat. "Whatever," he said.

"We're due in Anderson's office in an hour," Mark announced, checking the time. He sought out eye contact with Princess, who shoved her chair back and stood up, hands clenching into fists at her side.

"Whatever," she said, then grabbed her bowl. Milk sloshed over the side unheeded and Princess made her way to the return counter, where she slammed the bowl down on the conveyer, her movements uncharacteristically rough. She strode out of the ward room as though she had any number of places she'd rather be.

At the table, Mark and Jason exchanged looks, then Mark got up and hurried in the direction Princess had taken. Jason shook his head as he got up and collected Mark's plate.

"Princess! Wait up!" Mark caught up with Princess in the corridor.

"Yes, Commander?"

Mark made a helpless gesture with both hands. "Hey," he said. "I just want to know if you're okay."

"What makes you think I'm not? Has Jason been talking behind my back?"

"Jason?" Mark frowned. "What would he have said if he did?"

Caught out, Princess blushed. "I had my cerebonic recalibration the day before yesterday. Jason's been acting all protective and trying to be subtle about it, like he thinks I won't notice. He's the one who gets headaches every time Dr Bob tweaks his implants, not me! I'm fine!"

Mark took a breath. "I guess the words, 'Jason,' and, 'subtle,' aren't usually found in the same sentence. You want me to talk to him?"

"I can handle it. I'm as good as any member of this team. I don't need anyone to look out for me."

"I hear you, Princess, but if there is a problem, you tell me. We all have off days, and we all know that sometimes the scientists have to readjust our implants. If Dr Halloran's team doesn't get it quite right, I need to know, and that goes for any and all members of this team." He met her gaze. "You're telling me straight that Jason has no basis for worrying about you?"

Princess' hands clenched into fists. "None. Like I said, Mark, I'm fine."

"So you've got my six," Mark concluded. He noticed how Princess' gaze slid away from his.

"Right," she said, voice low.

"And I've got yours," he told her. He turned and started to walk away.

"Mark?" He stopped and waited. Princess' hand touched his arm. "I really am fine," she insisted. "I just didn't sleep well last night and for whatever reason, I wasn't hungry this morning. Jason's getting on my nerves, that's all. You can rely on me."

"I know," he said. "I'm heading down to the maintenance hangar to see how they're doing with those tailfins. Why don't you take some time, have a cup of coffee or something? I'll see you back in the ready room, before we report for our briefing."

"Sure, Mark."

Some of the more significant differences between the doctoral student he had been and the executive he was now, Anderson mused wearily as he brushed his teeth, had to do with the face that looked back out of the mirror. The doctoral student never had a web of fine lines around the eyes and mouth, or the furrows between the eyebrows, or the encroaching strands of grey in the hair. Admittedly, the doctoral student hadn't been quite as respectable or as well paid, but there were times when the executive wondered if it had been worth it.

By the time Anderson returned to his office, he felt almost ready to resume the day. There was one more thing he needed.

The aroma that drifted from the small kitchen area suggested that Anderson's requirement -- and that of several other staff -- was about to be met.

"Coffee's nearly ready, Chief," Lieutenant Maxwell said by way of greeting as he set mugs out on the countertop. "I'll bring a cup through to your office. Should I send down for breakfast?"

"Later, maybe," Anderson said.

"Yes, sir."

Anderson headed back to his office and considered the scanning unit with its enigmatic sample. The comm unit on his desk chimed and he answered the call.

"Good morning again, Chief Anderson. You'll be pleased to know that I believe I've found what you're looking for," 7-Zark-7 announced. "The alloy sample contains a large amount of a metal detected on an asteroid --"

"Send me the report, Zark," Anderson interrupted. "I'll read it."

"Oh." The robot sounded disappointed. "As you wish," it sniffed, and closed the channel.

Anderson settled in to his chair and called up the report. Zark had been busy: the robot had done what he was designed to do and interrogated thousands of databases from universities, manufacturing firms and exploration companies (the latter by electronic subterfuge backed up by the fine print in the Galaxy Security Act.) He'd matched the properties of the fragments retrieved from the rudder of the Phoenix with those of a mineral found in a core sample taken from a wandering asteroid, some six and a half kilometres across, with, at most, a few tonnes of useable raw ore. It was perhaps enough to produce a few weapons and armour a few ships, assuming the alloy makeup remained consistent with the sample. Certainly there wasn't enough to equip an army or a large fleet. At least that question was more or less answered. The question of a defence, let alone a countermeasure against something that could slice through ceramalloy like a hot knife through butter remained unaddressed.

Josh Maxwell arrived with fresh coffee and left again. Anderson drank the coffee and felt fortified enough to turn his attention from science to politics.

Anderson briefly re-read the casualty reports from the attack on the air show. Thirty four civilian spectators had been injured and two killed in the rush to escape the aerodrome. Seven more had been killed as a result of being aboard or too close to aircraft on the hardstand when they'd been destroyed. Eight civilian and ten military air crew had been killed, with another eighteen injured. Given that there had been hundreds of staff and thousands of spectators, and given the kind of damage Captain Doom could have inflicted, had he chosen, the figures were relatively light. On top of everything else, the Coroner was going to be called upon to deliver a report.

The next item was a copy of the communiqué from Captain Doom himself, setting out the terms of Earth's surrender. Doom had gone to some pains to point out that his terms were far more generous than anything Earth might expect from Zoltar, but this had done little to mitigate the outrage of the Federation Council. The ISO had held an emergency meeting, but since Doom had disappeared, and Planet Urgos denied that the pirate was acting as an official agent of their government, there was little that could be done. The Urgosian Assembly of Peers had not gone so far as to condemn Doom's action, but they were carefully distancing themselves as only politicians could.

President Kane had made a speech full of patriotic jingoism and a sternly worded letter had been presented to the Urgosian Ambassador, couched in diplomatic terminology which basically took three pages to effectively say, 'Hand the bad guy over, or else.' Anderson wasn't anticipating a particularly cooperative response.

While the diplomats exchanged polite but stern correspondence, Captain Doom would be marshalling resources for a second strike. Next time, Anderson vowed to himself, the space pirate wouldn't catch Galaxy Security flat-footed. Doom had sauntered in among the traffic for the air show, bypassing overloaded checkpoints and even Galaxy Security's own Early Warning System. President Kane had been decidedly unimpressed and dropped hints (although he'd stopped short of actual threats) to the effect that Anderson was holding on to his job by the skin of his teeth.

Anderson printed out the latest bulletins and read them: Urgos had indeed responded to Earth's diplomatic, 'Or else,' with an equally diplomatic, 'Or else, what?' but had also added a tacit denial of any knowledge of Doom's whereabouts or the location of his base of operations. Deirdre Kelly, G-Sec's Director Intelligence, was trying to make sense of conflicting analyses. Her initial recommendation was for the anomalous asteroid, which Zark had pinpointed as currently floating two hundred million miles out from Venus, to be investigated for evidence of unregistered mining operations. If there were any personnel around, they could be taken into custody and questioned.

The Federation's politicians and Earth's public wanted to see G-Force striking back at Captain Doom. In the absence of anything better to point them at, Anderson would send them two hundred million miles out from Venus to see if they could find a pirate turned prospector.

The Phoenix settled into time warp and Princess breathed deeply. Cold sweat trickled down the back of her neck and she tried to appear untroubled by the discomfort of the jump to time warp. That was a tough space shot, she mused. Tiny must have been pushing the envelope on that one. She called up the tactical data on the target asteroid and its surrounds.

Keyop's console uttered an alert tone and Princess got up from her seat to see what was happening.

"New... information!" Keyop chirped.

Princess skimmed the screen: Cosmic Space Patrol 409th Squadron reports target asteroid deserted. Evidence of mining ops. Samples collected for analysis by SciDiv. Preliminary soil contamination results and new intel information implicate Urgosian involvement...

The voice of 7-Zark-7 sounded on the internal speakers, advising them to divert to Planet Urgos. Princess and Keyop studied the rest of the intelligence report, then began configuring the Phoenix's infrascanners to detect the mystery metal's unique signature.

"You're certain that the Urgosian Assembly of Peers knew about this?" President Kane asked, eyes narrowing under his bushy white brows.

"Our operatives were able to obtain a classified transcript of an Assembly session held in camera some six months ago, Mr President," Anderson said. " A provincial politician, one Ven Arish, put up a proposal that the Assembly allocate funding to Captain Doom for metallurgical work relating to something called 'Urgosium.' We believe that Urgosium may be what they're calling the alloy made from the ore they got out of that asteroid."

"Knowing about a weapon isn't quite the same as using it, Anderson."

"Three weeks ago, there was another secret session. The dialogue is circumspect, but the gist of it is that Ven Arish -- again -- was trying to get overt support for Captain Doom's attack on Earth."

"Given the denials we're getting out of the Urgosians, I assume he failed," Kane inferred.

"The Assembly gave informal, in-principle support for the attack, and made it clear that they intended to deny any involvement once the proverbial hit the fan. They knew about it then, they know about it now, and they're waiting to pick up the pieces as soon as we look like capitulating."

"An Act of War, then," Kane growled.

"An undeclared Act of War, sir," Anderson confirmed.

"Then let's return the favour," Kane said.

"The Phoenix is en-route to Planet Urgos as we speak, Mr President," Anderson said.

"Good." Alexander Kane got out of his seat and strolled to the window. "Several members of the Federation Council are already starting to talk about the feasibility of opening negotiations with this pirate. We need G-Force to succeed, and decisively."

"With respect, sir, they're facing a weapon that has the potential to destroy virtually anything we send up against it," Anderson pointed out. "We don't have a countermeasure and we don't even know what to expect."

"And if we don't nip the ambitions of this Captain Doom in the bud, here and now, he'll walk all over us!" Kane growled.

"Yes, sir," Anderson said.

"I'm aware of your misgivings, Anderson," Kane said, "but we simply can't afford to show weakness at a time like this. The public need to feel that their government can protect them. We didn't even come close, yesterday. We need to try and restore public confidence in the Council and the ISO."

And your administration. "Yes, Mr President."

Deep within the Urgosium refining base, the workers had their quarters. A spacious apartment had been set aside for the project leader and her family. Tierna had retired to her quarters to shed a few scant tears of relief at her husband's escape following the success of his mission, then composed herself, prepared the evening meal and calmly awaited his return.

When the biplane was confirmed as having safely landed, Tierna instructed her daughter Elenie to make tea, and went to greet Captain Doom.

Tierna waited in the doorway, calm and dignified, her light brown hair pulled back in its usual coil, while her husband strode along the corridor.

"Did you see?" he called to her as he approached.

"I did," Tierna said, smiling. "I have also been monitoring the GNN news bulletins. The Earthlings speak of nothing else but your surprise attack on the air show. Quanto Tobor Aeronautics, Mitsubishi Starship, Boeing, Terajima Corporation, Galactic Dynamic and Consolidated Aerospace shares are crashing on stock exchanges all over the galaxy. They say the sector could take years to recover."

Doom swept her up and into their quarters, kicking the door shut behind him. "It was a triumph, beloved! The Earth forces had no idea what was going on until it was too late!"

"You had the element of surprise," Tierna qualified, ever the cautious one. "Next time, they will be on their guard."

"True," Doom admitted, "but they have nothing that can stand against weapons made of Urgosium." He set her down on her feet in the living room, but kept his hands on her waist in a familiar gesture of affection and possessiveness. "Have you had word from the Assembly of Peers?"

"You will have to speak with Demmish about that," Tierna said. "He has been in almost constant communication with Governor Arish."

"I'll speak to him soon," Doom said. "What does GNN say about me?"

"Their reporters speak of a secret weapon that defeated G-Force. They speak of your mercy and your daring, and they have run stories on what they know of your history. Frank Wheeler from the Times is calling you 'the mystery gentleman swashbuckler from the stars.'"

"Frank Wheeler is an idiot," Doom said, "but it's a nice touch."

"I must confess," Tierna said, a mischievous smile playing around her eyes and mouth, "I thought it had a certain charm."

"We should discuss this later," Doom said, as their daughter entered the room. Both parents turned to greet Elenie, who at fifteen, was still somewhat awkward and coltish, but showed promise of beauty as she matured. She had her mother's grey eyes but had inherited her thick auburn hair, a rarity among Urgosians, from her father.

"Welcome home, Fa," Elenie said, smiling. Her smile widened and she almost jumped up and down on the spot. "Ma, may I tell him? May I?"

"Tell me what?" Doom asked. Tiarna nodded.

"Jahno wants to give me a betrothal pin!" Elenie squealed.

"Then we have double cause for celebration!" Doom declared.

"You approve?" Elenie breathed, eyes shining. "I thought you didn't like the idea."

"My only concern with this betrothal," Doom told her, "is your happiness, and you appear to be very happy. Know these two things, though, my sweet: if you ever change your mind, I will move the stars to set things right, and if Jahno ever does anything to hurt you, he will have me to deal with."

"He never would, Fa. He loves me."

"Of course he does," Doom said. "And now, forgive me, but I must ask Demmish to join us for tea. I need to hear his report."

"Elenie," Tierna said, "set an extra cup at the table. I must give your father my report, as well."

"Did you manage to solve the ceramic impurity problem?" Doom asked.

"I did," Tierna said, her lips curving into a smile of triumph. "This afternoon, we will alloy the remaining Urgosium into enough armour to outfit the Firebrand. The Urgosium whips remain your exclusive weapon, but incorporating Urgosium into ceramalloy plate will make your flagship safer and stronger than anything else in the galaxy."

"Including the legendary Phoenix," Doom added. "You're a genius, Tierna. I'm a lucky man."

Amidst the humming, almost musical buzz and chime of Nerve Center, 7-Zark-7 took note of the biotelemetry data being transmitted back from the G-Force team and his antennae jumped with alarm. "Oh, my!" he said. "Princess' cerebonic implants aren't functioning at peak potentiality. This could be a real problem..." The robot turned as the access door slid open and an IT team entered, looking for all the world like surgeons in their antistatic suits, gloves and masks.

"Hey, Zark," Lieutenant Morris said, raising a hand in greeting. "Time for your new upload, cyberdude."

"But I'm in the middle of --" Zark began to protest.

"Chief Anderson's orders," Morris chided. "No delays, he said. You really ticked him off, not issuing an alert when you detected that pirate vessel inbound yesterday. We have to get you a little sharper on those early warnings, my little metal man."

"But I have to warn --"

"Not that it's your fault," Morris said, and reached behind Zark's head to flick a switch. The robot's arms went limp and his facial LEDs blinked yellow as Zark powered down into maintenance mode. "It's just your programming. Garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes," Morris continued. "Chan, you get the top of his head off. Schiavo, pass me the microvac. We might as well clean out any crud that's got into his circuit boards while we're here."

An appropriate level of response by Grumpy Ghost Owl
Author's Notes:
G-Force mounts a counter-strike against the space pirate Captain Doom, of the hostile planet Urgos. Princess' cerebonic implants are malfunctioning, but she doesn't yet realise that there is a problem. Meanwhile, on Urgos, Captain Doom's forces are planning to outfit their fleet of pirate corsairs with a ceramic-alloy containing the super-strong metal, Urgosium.

This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.

Thanks to Catherine Rees-Lay for beta reading and for coming up with a fantastic way to resolve that stupid, stupid business with Mark appearing to throw the whip into the sea. Thanks to Sharon Alvarado for technical advice on the properties of metals and the Modified Moh's Scale.

Battle of the Planets: 2163

The Phoenix dropped out of time warp and Princess fought down a wave of nausea. She took a deep breath to settle herself and squared her shoulders. Urgos loomed large on the viewscreen. A continent whose coastline reminded her of the joining of the North and South American land masses on Earth peeked out from under cloud cover.

Princess studied her console. There were no energy signatures or solid targets suggestive of a response to their arrival, as yet. An indicator flashed on Keyop's console and the boy transferred the scan data to the printer at the command console.

"Contact, Mark," Tiny reported as he took note of the data. "We got something."

Mark grabbed the hard copy and studied the results before showing the sheet to Tiny. "If this laser print out is right," Mark said, "our detectors have spotted something right here." He pointed to a landmark in the centre of the map. "Let's duck down for a closer look around."

Tiny took note of the coordinates, his expression turning grim. "Goin' down," he said, and put the Phoenix into a vertical descent, heading straight for the target shown on the map: a mountain range whose largest peak was crowned with a jagged crater.

Below them, the mountain seemed to move as an enormous iris opened in the crater. Princess leaned forward, as did the others, their attention riveted to the view screens, which revealed a missile battery.

"Jackpot," Mark said, satisfaction evident in his voice. "The enemy neighbours are home." The tactical console began to flash red: the Urgosians were attempting to establish weapons lock. "Evasive action, Tiny!"

The Phoenix rose like a bird breaking cover in response to Tiny's control input and Princess stifled a gasp as the cabin lurched. Tiny Harper made the Phoenix dance to avoid four missiles, then put the command ship back into a dive.

The opening to the missile battery loomed large on the view screen. "Let's take 'em out," Tiny growled.

Mark rested a gently restraining hand on the big pilot's arm. "I doubt if our missiles can get through their force field," he cautioned. "We'll fake 'em out," he decided. "Go in to your 'wounded bird' act, Tiny."

"Bummer," Tiny sighed. "I get to play chauffeur again while you guys live it up big."

Two missiles exploded off the port wing and Princess held on to her seat. The view screen filled with orange and black for a moment.

"Near miss," Tiny said. "I'll start the smoke." He activated a sequence and initiated a rapid descent. Princess called up the readout and watched video feed from the rear of the ship as oil was fed into a combustion chamber near the ship's exhaust to produce thick, black smoke.

"--Be joining us?" Mark's voice reached her and Princess jumped. Mark was already standing by the belly hatch as Jason and Keyop took up their positions.

"Just monitoring our smoke output, Commander," Princess said, and joined the rest of the team at the hatch.

"On three," Mark told them. "One... two... three -- Everybody out!"

Princess followed Mark out of the hatch, slicing into the slipstream, arms extended like a diver to offer as little resistance as possible. She felt the familiar lift and drag of her cape wings and controlled her descent toward the looming mountainside for maximum speed, tilting her body to brake at the last possible moment and landing easily on the steep rocky incline.

She felt and heard Keyop touch down beside her, then they were all on their feet, following Mark in a mad dash for the peak. The missile battery had withdrawn back into the crater and the huge metal iris was closing. Princess flung herself forward, through the dwindling space available, and clung to rock, taking deep breaths of warm, metallic-tasting air.

As Princess turned her head to seek out Mark, she met Jason's gaze. The second in command was watching her with a coolly appraising stare.

Jason's mouth moved silently, forming soundless words. "You okay?"

Princess nodded and fought to keep her irriation from showing. "Fine," she mouthed back. She risked looking down and took in the view of an enormous cavern, partially lined with what looked like stainless steel. Below them, the missile battery hissed softly as it bled pressure from its systems. Tunnels branched off from the main cavern with some kind of rail tracking system mounted at ceiling height. They probably move the missiles in on those, Princess mused. The stench of rocket exhaust was slowly dissipating and Princess fought the urge to cough. On a wall down at floor level, a telltale panel of indicator lights cycled red, then amber. When it changed colour to green, Princess realised, there was a good chance they'd have company.

At Mark's signal, Princess relinquished her hold on the cavern wall and let her cape wings control her fall to the floor. She landed next to Jason, and got to her feet.

Mark was standing and taking in their surroundings. "Okay," he said, "now that we've found the way in, what?"

Keyop stuttered and punched the air. "Sock it to em!" he suggested, a belligerent gleam in his eyes.

"Down, boy!" Jason said, and Keyop cringed. "Mark, don't you think we ought to send Princess and Keyop back to the Phoenix? This one is dangerous."

Princess didn't turn to look at him. "Maybe we should send you back, Jason," she retorted. She watched Mark's face as a flicker of annoyance crossed his features.

"Knock it off, both of you," Mark told them. "We've got a job to do." He studied the panel of flickering amber lights for a moment. "So, let's get to it," he told them.

"Ready or not," Keyop chirped, "here we come!"

Princess followed Mark along a wide corridor. Mark kept his voice down to a low murmur, but Princess could hear him easily. "So, what was that all about, back there?" he asked.

"Maybe you should be asking Jason that question," Princess said.

"I'm planning on it," Mark said. "I just thought you might give me some insight, Princess."

"Mark, If I'm a little edgy, maybe it's because Jason's trying to play mother hen and I don't need him to. Do you really think I'd put the rest of the team at risk?"

Mark opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again as he caught sight of a side tunnel that branched off from the main corridor. "Let's check it out," he said. Cautiously, they edged forward, keeping close to the wall. Mark peered around a curve in the wall. "There's only one guard," he told Princess. "We'll put him out for an hour."

Mark broke into a sprint, and Princess followed. By the time she'd caught him, the guard was slumped over the safety railing, unconscious. Mark and Princess stopped on a narrow catwalk, and gazed over the rails down into a deep, metal-lined shaft. A ladder descended into the unlit depths. Below them, red and yellow light flickered, casting weird, sickly shadows in the darkness. Princess ran through the possibilities in her mind. Anything that generated that much of a light show had to have a lot of indicators, and anything that had a lot of indicators was probably going to be important.

"I want to take a closer look at that thing," Mark decided, leaning forward over the rail.

"Be careful, Mark," Princess warned. "They're bound to have this equipment well protected."

"Cover me," Mark told her, and vaulted over the safety railing to land on the ladder. Princess tensed, half expecting a motion sensor alarm to activate, but no warnings sounded, and Mark glanced around, pleased with the lack of noise. "So far, so good," he decided. "Keep your eyes open."

"Right," Princess said, and watched as Mark continued his descent, rung by careful rung.

Tierna entered the operations centre at a run. "The refinery has been locked down," she reported, catching her breath. "What is it?"

"G-Force," said Kersh. The communications officer's expression was mostly hidden by his Spectran army-issue half-mask, but the downward turn and tension of his mouth spoke volumes.

"The Captain has everything under control," Demmish declared, staunch as ever. "He's gone to sector seven to deal with a couple of our visitsors personally. Don't you worry about Elenie. She's nowhere near the infiltrators. She'll be fine. It's like the Captain said just now, it is Urgos that will conquer Earth, not Spectra." The senior officer's mask lay on the console beside his tea mug, enabling him to cast an effective glower in Kersh's direction. "Isn't that right, Midshipman Kersh?"

"Yes, Mister Demmish," Kersh said, grimacing under the mask.

But this is G-Force! Tierna's mind screamed into the silence of her own head. They have destroyed so many bases, so many ships, and we are defending now, not attacking. This what G-Force does best. Aloud, she forced herself to speak calmly. "Thank you, Kersh. Of course Subcommander Demmish is correct. The Captain will not allow any of us to come to harm." She forced herself to look at the screen, where a white cloaked figure was making its way down a ladder in one of the cooling shafts. "Is that the G-Force Commander?"

"It is," Demmish said. "And with no idea that we're monitoring him, from the looks of things. Kersh, activate the laser cannons. We will see how the mighty G-Force enjoy their welcome."

Princess felt a surge of adrenaline as panels slid aside in the shaft walls, revealing the ugly muzzles of automatic laser weapons. She called out a warning. "Mark! Behind you!" Her hands went to her face and she leaned forward, her blood running cold. Mark's uniform would offer some protection from edged weapons and small-calibre projectiles, but a laser could fry a G-Forcer in less than a second.

Mark glanced over his shoulder and let go of the ladder. He let himself fall backward, catching his feet behind the rungs as he did so. His movement was fast enough to confuse the tracking system -- a beam melted the lining of the shaft bare centimetres to his right. His boomering was in his hand ever before he'd completed the swing and he cast it from an inverted position, giving himself just enough time to aim.

The boomerang scythed through the air in a deadly arc. It sliced through the muzzles of both the laser cannons. Mark kicked free of the ladder and fell, following the mangled metal to the floor, his cape wings snapping out to slow him down. He landed and thrust one hand upward, head bowed as he listened for the sound of the boomerang, which hit his palm with a solid, familiar smack.

He rose to his feet, hand closing around the boomerang. Automatically, he spun it around his fingers, checking the balance before sheathing it again. Above him, Princess breathed a sigh of relief as he glanced up at her and tossed off a jaunty salute.

Princess stood in the gap in the safety railing where the ladder access was and launched herself into empty air. She extended her cape fully so that she could fall as slowly as possible. She couldn't help but stare at the smoking ruin of the laser cannons as she passed them. Someone knew they were here. Below her, Mark was talking into his communicator, alerting Jason and Keyop, no doubt.

Mark watched carefully as Princess landed. "What kept you?" he quipped.

"Just checking out the scenery," Princess replied in kind. "What's the word?"

"Jason and Keyop are about to hit some kind of generator," Mark told her. "In the meantime, let's see what we've got in here."

"Earthling fools!" Captain Doom's voice rang out in ultimatum. "Did you think you could invade the planet of Urgos without being observed by our forces? Your presence was detected the moment you arrived! And now, fools, you shall pay for your invasion! Throw down your weapons!"

The smaller of the two invaders grimaced and stuttered something incoherent, then both of the G-Forcers tossed their strange weapons to the floor.

Doom gazed down at the cloaked and helmeted figures standing below him. The rangy young man gazed back through his hawk-billed visor with the kind of stare that suggested he was taking careful note of everything and listing questions for later. They would be pointed questions, too, if the look in those eyes was anything to go by. Next to him, the boy stared in an honest mix of fear and fury. Doom's eyes kept returning to the youth's face. There was something familiar about him, but Doom's memory refused to relinquish the information.

The young man muttered something to the boy, who folded his arms across his chest, hugging himself as if to keep out the cold.

Subcommander Ramala took up position at Doom's elbow. "That wasn't so hard," she said.

Doom didn't turn around to look at her. "Nevertheless," he murmured, "be on your guard. A great many people have learned the hard way not to underestimate G-Force. If I am not mistaken," he continued, "the elder of our two miscreants has just advised the younger to prepare for some kind of action."

"Men!" Ramala called her troop to attention. "Apprehend the Earthlings! Search them for concealed weapons and then straight to the brig with them!"

The pirates, in their green and brown uniforms, shouldered arms and hurried down the steps from the catwalk while Doom remained in position, watching his soon-to-be prisoners. Ramala, who, like most of Doom's senior officers, eschewed the Spectran mask, tossed her red hair and smiled. "Your name will be spoken with awe for this, Captain," she predicted.

"That, Subcommander, will depend on who is doing the speaking," Doom pointed out.

Ramala started down the steps, following her men.

The movement was so fast, Doom could never afterward remember exactly how it had happened. The boy had leaped so fast he was a yellow blur, and before Ramala's pirates could bring their weapons to bear, the G-Forcers had spun somehow, forming a miniature tornado.

Men were knocked flying before they could fire their guns. Ramala herself clung to the steps, long hair whipping in the wind, her rifle bouncing, rattling uselessly down to the floor below.

Doom clung to the railing, his coat flapping like a sail as the whirlwind rose and flew past him.

And vanished.

It took less than a heartbeat for Doom to recover himself. "After them!" he ordered. "Find them! Find them and shoot to kill!"

The open doorway led into a vaulted chamber full of computer equipment. Enormous cooling ducts loomed over the banks of what looked like compacted server arrays, and below these, high density tape backups were running in cabinets taller than Princess was. A panel took up a good chunk of the far wall, displaying coloured indicators that accounted for the colourful light display they'd seen from the top of the shaft.

"This looks like an important unit, Princess," Mark said, voicing Princess' own thoughts. "D'you think you could figure out what it does? In a hurry?" he added.

"I can try," Princess said, and darted forward. Okay, discount the cooling ducts -- any system this large could account for those -- look at the server arrays... and the tapes. Banks and banks of tapes... A low thoughtful hum escaped her. Tapes, rather than chips. That meant someone needed to compact a lot of archival information. Could it be that these tapes held the research on that seemingly indestructible alloy Captain Doom had used in his laser whips?

"I hate to push, Princess," Mark's voice intruded on her thoughts, "but... Uh-oh."

Princess straightened and whirled around in alarm as Mark landed next to her. Her heart gave a thump as she took in the sight of two large mantis-like robots, armed with killing blades on their forelegs. She shrank back against the computer unit as one blade smashed into the floor between her and Mark. She reeled, dizzy, a wave of nausea threatening to overwhelm her.

Mark was airborne, drawing the robots away from Princess. She watched in horror as he goaded one of the units into slicing away at a cable duct, behind which he'd darted. Again and again the massive blade tore through metal and optic fibre as though it were nothing.

The second unit swivelled, its optics seeking out another target. Princess lunged to her left, but the machine followed. With a rush of air, Mark landed in front of her and backed up, one arm thrust out protectively. The mantis robots closed in.

Princess took Mark's outstretched hands in her own and sprang upward. He guided her on to his shoulders and she straightened, finding her balance.

"Here we go, Princess," Mark said, "whirlwind pyramid!"

Princess stretched arms and cape wings. She felt the rush of energy from her cerebonic implants boost her confidence even as it boosted her body. She was spinning, flying, arcing over the top of the attacking robots like a lightning bolt. Nothing could stop her, now!

The energy rush peaked and kept going. Princess tried to gasp and couldn't. This was wrong. There was too much power surging through her, setting off neural fireworks as she landed. There was no time to stop and take stock, however. She could hear the machines behind her impacting and exploding as their own momentum carried them into the computer unit. For a fraction of a second, she felt a twinge of regret that she'd never know what had been on those tapes, but she was running, now, letting the enhanced strength of her cerebonics carry her back to the ladder in the tall shaft.

Alarms sounded and Kersh swore under his breath.

"What is that?" Tierna wondered.

"The audio pickup was not entirely clear, ma'am," Demmish said, "but it sounded like whirlwind pyramid."

"I can translate the words easily enough," Tierna said, "but what does a weather phenomenon have to do with an ancient tomb?"

"Who knows?" Demmish said bitterly. "We have lost the main archive and G-Force seems to be running amok in our base!"

"Sir!" Kersh said. "Message from the Captain. He says he's proceeding to the main cooling shaft to take care of the G-Force Commander personally!" Kersh turned to Tierna. "Ma'am, he says to tell you he has the whip, and he's planning on using it."

"I see." Tierna felt cold fingers trailing an icy path down her spine. "I have no doubt that the Captain will be victorious," she said.

Kersh listened to another message and acknowledged it. "Ma'am," another message. "Power surges are causing problems with the refinery systems. The message cut out and I can't raise them, but I think they were saying that there's a fire. It looks as though the damage control team is already there."

"I'd better go back and make sure they're all right," Tierna declared. "If you will excuse me, Subcommander?"

"Of course," Demmish said, and bowed. "Take Germo and Henn with you. Just to be on the safe side."

Tierna ran. Her guards kept pace with her, rifles at the ready. She ignored them, wrapped in her own worry. Defence of their home base was something Doom's pirate force had never had to contend with, before. They were raiders, always striking into enemy territory and coming home to sanctuary. They had never had to fight off invaders of their own.

Henn opened the first of the heavy blast doors that led to the refinery and motioned for Tierna to proceed.

"Thank you --" she started to say, and then Germo made a short, strangled noise before falling like a sack of meal, bright blood blossoming on the front of his uniform.

"Get back!" Henn shouted. He shoved Tierna through the doors and hit the control to shut the door. Tierna saw something wrap itself around his throat, saw him clutch vainly at it, and then the doors slammed shut, leaving her alone.

She turned on her heel and ran for the next set of doors. They opened and she was met by a sea of worried faces. She frowned as she recognised the smell of smoke.

"What's happening, Tierna?" asked Niarra, one of the senior technicians. "We're on emergency power and we had surges in the production room! Half of section four is on fire!"

Tierna sealed the blast doors behind her. "The Earthlings have sent a small force against us," she said, truthfully, leaving out the worst of it. "Only a few operatives, but it's safer for us to stay here, for now." She forced away the vision of Germo slumping to the floor with a bullet to the heart.

"We have crews down in section four," Shoren, another technician reported, "but it doesn't look good."

"Ma?" Tierna turned toward the sound of Elenie's voice. "Ma, they made us leave our quarters and come here! There are fires!"

"With enemy agents in the complex, the refinery section is safer than crew quarters, dear heart," Tierna said. "Even with the fire in section four. Everything is going to be fine. Your father is taking care of it." Tierna smiled at her staff. "Everything is going to be fine," she said again, and icy claws of foreboding seemed to close around her heart.

When Mark stopped at the foot of the ladder, Princess slid into the wall and tried not to fall. The surfeit of power fell away from her like a mother's arms and she stifled a sob.

Mark's face showed his concern. "Princess?"

She met his eyes, started to tell him she was fine, and realised she wasn't. "Cerebonic overboost," she whispered. "Something's not right."

"Okay," Mark said. "It's okay. We'll deal with it. Can you make the climb?"

Princess let her gaze travel up the length of the ladder. It hadn't seemed nearly so long when all she'd had to do was glide down. "I have to," she reasoned.

"I've got your back, you know that," Mark said. "Come on. Let's get out of here."

"Do you think Jason and Keyop managed to kill that generator?" Princess asked.

"Hard to say," Mark said, beginning the ascent. "I was kinda busy in there."

"I noticed," Princess quipped, and set her hands and feet to the ladder.

She hadn't expected it to be shaking. The explosions behind them were sending out shock waves as they cascaded through power connections and conduits.

Princess climbed. Above her, Mark was moving quickly. She struggled to match his pace.

"Here," Mark said, turning and reaching out. "Let me give you a hand."

Princess accepted the proferred hand and continued climbing. Chagrin burned at her. Jason had been right. He must have been picking up on something she'd missed. Her judgement must have been off, somehow. Mentally, she replayed her memories of the last two days. She'd felt fine after the recalibration, but with the clarity of hindsight, she could see that her irritability and sleeplessness hadn't just been caused by stress. Or maybe it had, reasoned another part of her mind. Maybe there was some other problem entirely. There was only one way to know for sure: survive this mission and report to the cerebonic lab.

Step One: survive this mission.

At least, Princess told herself, she hadn't been partnered with Jason.

But then, Jason wouldn't have given her any grief about it, either. At least not until they got back aboard the Phoenix. Even then, it was impossible to tell what Jason might or might not say. He might simply give her a look and say nothing, and that, quite possibly, would be just as bad as anything he could say out loud.

Above them, something moved. A flicker of pale fabric, the soft gleam of a whip uncoiling, then the tips of boots visible over the edge of the catwalk, followed by a ghastly horned Death's head with its mocking rictus of a smile as a tall figure moved to stand over the ladder.

"Captain Doom!" Princess cried.

Mark's attention was suddenly focussed upward.

"Now I've got you!" Doom crowed, triumphant. "And for the damage you have caused, you shall pay dearly! Prepare yourselves!"

Doom raised his right arm and cracked the whip in one smooth, vicious motion. Mark flinched away from the tip as it tore through the side of the ladder and left a deep scar in the lining of the shaft. Metal gave way and the ladder swung precariously. Princess hung on to Mark and the remaining side of the ladder. The whip lashed down toward them again, at the limit of its extension, and again, cutting the ladder free from its moorings just below Mark's grip.

Princess transferred her other hand to Mark's to steady herself. Doom could easily cut the ladder above them, and they would be obliged to glide down again, fight off whatever Doom had mustered to meet them, and somehow find another way out. Would she be able to make it? If she overboosted again, she might well win any fight, but would she survive the aftermath? Did she have enough energy left to keep going? Would another overboost put her cerebonics into life support mode and render her unconscious and useless to Mark, a burden he didn't need?

On the catwalk, Doom strutted, the light glinting off his mask. "I am bored with this game!" he gloated. "It is time to end it! Farewell, Earthlings!"

"Need your pitching arm, Princess," Mark said.

Princess' right hand went to her belt. She scooped the yoyo out of its holster and cast it upward, the line paying out with a hiss. Her aim was true: the yoyo wrapped itself around the safety railing above even as Doom sent the whip snaking toward them again to cut the ladder loose.

Regardless of the risk of her implants malfunctioning, there was no choice, now. Heart pounding, Princess hauled on the yoyo line as Mark pushed off with his feet. Again she felt the surge of cerebonically enhanced energy lending her strength as she leapt upward, but this time there was no deadly overboost, only the normal peak and trough of adrenaline. Her feet cleared the safety railing, then hit the catwalk and her momentum carried her forward to relative safety with Mark close behind.

There was no time for Princess to indulge in her sense of relief as Doom whirled to face them. "You made it interesting," he sneered, "but now, my Earthling friends, we must put an end to it!"

Princess tensed as Mark shifted his weight forward. There was no defence against a weapon that could slice through ceramalloy, no tactic other than evasion that could possibly save them.

A distant detonation shook the base, and a claxon began to sound.

Doom, poised to attack, twisted and stared at the flashing warning light. "The main electron generator is about to blow!" he exclaimed, voice pitching upward in alarm.

Seeing an opening, Mark sprang forward. His hand struck Doom's outstretched wrist in a precise chop. Princess was sure she heard the crack of bone just before the deadly whip fell from Doom's grip. Mark landed and steadied himself, his cape flicking up to obscure his vision for less than a second. He lunged at Doom's coat --

Only to find himself grasping an empty garment.

"He vanished into thin air!" Mark breathed. Unthinking, he dropped the garish costume and ran, searching for his unseen enemy.

"Mark!" Princess called. "Let him go! Let's get out before this place blows up!"

Mark stopped. For a moment, his rage snarled at him to keep going, to make Doom pay for what he'd done and what he'd tried to do, but the more rational part of his mind insisted that Princess was right. He nodded, and activated his communicator. "Jason! Keyop! Rendezvous! Rendezvous and move it!" He bent and snatched up the Urgosium whip, grabbed Princess' hand, and broke into a run.


The word was worse than the alarms, Tierna realised. The word promised death where the alarms only warned of danger. Fuelled by the chemicals in the refinery, the fire had overwhelmed the damage control crews and was spreading toward the control centre. Worse still, there were alarming readings coming from the geothermic fistula.

"The blast doors are jammed," Niarra reported. "We can't override the lockdown, and I can't get through to anyone in the main operations room."

"We'll die like animals in here!" one of the men cried out.

"If we do die," Tierna snarled, "then we will die fighting! Get the hoses! Find extinguishers -- not the carbon dioxide, the dry chemical type. Hurry! Are you pirates or cowards? Fight!"

"We are technicians," Niarra mumbled too quietly for the others to hear, her face white. "But we will fight."

For all her fine words, Tierna realised that they were indeed fighting, but it was a losing battle. She felt her heart contract in fear when Elenie staggered in with a coughing toddler in her arms. The girl's face was blackened with soot and streaked with tears.

"The children!" Elenie choked out, and burst into wild keens of grief.

"Vargeth was supposed to be getting the children out of section five!" Shoren exclaimed.

"He's dead," Elenie moaned. "The ceiling collapsed. Liria and I were the only ones to get out."

Niarra took the wheezing child from Elenie's arms. "She's having trouble breathing," she reported. "It must be all the smoke. Where is the medical kit?"

"Try the control centre," Shoren suggested, and Niarra trudged away with the child.

"Have we got everyone?" Tierna asked.

"There were seven people trapped on the other side of the milling section," Shoren said sadly. "Jaria tried to get to them, but..." his voice trailed off miserably. "We heard an explosion," he said.

"Shut the doors," Tierna ordered. "We have to try and make a safe capsule for ourselves until we can be rescued."

Tierna looked around her at the tiny group of filthy, smoke stained people -- three technicians, herself, Elenie and the child Liria. Without power to the hydraulics, Shoren and Porven were struggling to seal the heavy doors by hand.

The explosions in the archive had sent power surges running rampant throughout the base. Several units in the refinery had caught fire, others had exploded. Then the main electron generator had gone, taking out most of the power, leaving them with emergency lighting and no air conditioning. The remaining equipment in the refinery had overheated and the fire had gone out of control.

Now the six of them were cowering in the control room, frightened and desperate. Niarra, who had been tending the smoke-affected child, began to weep. When Tierna glanced toward her, Niarra had covered Liria's face with her jacket and lay the body on a desk in the corner. Elenie put her hands to her face and sobbed.

Tierna turned her attention to the main console. Most of the room was dark, but this one unit was on emergency battery and still retained some functionality. She attempted to contact the operations room, but the main computer had been too badly damaged to make a connection. "Elenie," she called softly, "I need your help. Can you re-route the communications to reconnect us with any of the base systems?"

"I'll try," Elenie sniffed in a small voice.

"Then please, my dear," Tierna said, "do so."

Elenie sat down at the console while Tierna tried to look brave.

"The door's warming up," Shoren observed. "It's too hot to touch, and these things are supposed to be rated for eight hours against fire."

Tierna's breath caught in her throat. "You think... "

"The magma fistula's ruptured," Porvan said. "We're in a volcano, after all," he reminded them.

"The volcano can't be erupting," Tierna reasoned.

"It doesn't have to be erupting," Porvan muttered, keeping his voice down. "If it were erupting, we'd already be dead. "No, this is just a minor rupture, probably caused by the cascade when the main generator blew. We were using geothermic power to run the refinery and the crews hit that pocket of molten rock last month. We knew it was dangerous. And now..."

"And now it is only a matter of time," Tierna concluded.

"I am afraid so," Porvan said. "Even the Captain won't be able to get a rescue crew through to us in time. I'm sorry."

"I've accessed the infrastructure server!" Elenie announced. Tierna forced herself to smile and walk over to the console.

"Well done," she said. "Now, let me see what may be done."

"But I haven't finished!" Elenie protested. "Don't you want to get through to the operations centre?"

"Later, perhaps," Tierna lied. "For now, I am going to make G-Force pay." She called up a system status report. There was one self-heating crucible of alloying components awaiting delivery. It would do nicely. She entered the command that would turn the solid metal into a molten cauldron of death as it made its way along the delivery track toward the missile and delivery chamber.

Princess sprinted, as fearful of another surge of cerebonic energy as she was of ambush by the Urgosians. She forced herself to focus on maintaining the pace as they skidded around the curve of the wall and raced back into the missile chamber. As they entered the chamber, she could just make out the shadowy figures of Jason and Keyop leaping from the missile array up the the welcoming sanctuary of the Phoenix.

As they reached the base of the missile launcher, Princess heard movement and glanced upward. The ceiling tracks she'd noticed before now carried what appeared to be an enormous crucible. Above its gaping mouth, the air shimmered and the stench of hot metal reached her nose and mouth. The crucible began to tilt, spilling its molten contents on to the floor in a rush of heat and flame.

Mark sprang upward and Princess did likewise, but this time, her cerebonic implants denied her the extra boost she expected. She faltered and clutched at the missile launcher, a bare three feet above the floor.

Mark's hand closed about her wrist and he hauled her up by his main strength. "Hold tight!" he urged.

"I'm slipping!" she cried, terror gripping at her vitals.

"I won't let you fall!" he told her. "Come on!"

Princess struggled to find a purchase as the deadly tide of molten metal rose higher. If they didn't make their escape quickly, the launcher itself would begin to collapse and melt. She found a foothold and pushed as Mark dragged them both up to the top. The fumes from the alloy threatened to overwhelm her and her vision began to swim and fade.

The blast door was heating up to the point where the air was difficult to breathe.

"Elenie," Tierna said. "Come here, dearest."

"Ma," Elenie whispered as her mother enfolded her in her arms, "isn't Fa coming to save us?"

"Of course he is," Tierna said, her eyes filling with tears. "You'll see. He'll be here."

"I'm frightened, Ma," Elenie said.

"Don't be," Tierna said. "I'm going to get you something out of the medical kit to help you relax," she promised.

Tierna prayed that it would be there, and it was: phials of barbiturate, kept close at hand for use in the event of an industrial accident in the refinery, enough to make it easy for Elenie, at least, and for the rest of them, she had her sidearm. Hands shaking, she began to prepare a syringe.

Princess felt Mark's arm tighten around her and pull her upward, then relax again as he deposited her atop the missile launcher where she lay struggling to remain conscious. She was aware of movement, and summoned the last of her strength to stand and hold on to Mark's arm. He had used Doom's whip to give them a lifeline up to the Phoenix and she could see Jason and Keyop hauling on it, hand over hand, bringing them home.

Inside, Princess staggered slightly as Keyop flung his arms around her in relief. Mark turned his attention to the ship.

"Let's go, Tiny!" he ordered. "Right now!"

"Big ten," Tiny responded automatically, working the controls. Princess held on to Keyop as the engines powered up. Tiny was working frantically at the console, but there was no familiar sensation of ascent. "The heat must've jammed the lift system," the big pilot reported.

The ship began to vibrate as the engines struggled. Tiny's console was a mass of amber and red lights, his fingers flying over the controls. The outside temperature gauges were showing red and the cabin was growing warm. "It's now or never, Tiny," Mark called. "Lift her!"

Tiny paused for a moment, then began diverting power from other systems. He shut down the vertical take off engines and channelled all the ship's power to the aft thrusters.

There was a lurch as the Phoenix came to life and surged forward, scraping her belly on the rocks below. For an awful moment, she was falling, hanging in the air without enough lift over her wings, but the brute force of the engines propelled her onward, and the stall warning horns fell silent as the air speed rose. The Phoenix grabbed fists full of sky and climbed.

David Anderson stared at the metallic object in his hands. It reminded him of the barb of a bee sting, but unlike a bee sting, it was made of almost pure Urgosium.

"As per my report," Mark said, "the tip was the only part of that particular weapon made of the indestructible Urgosium. The rest of it was normal alloy, so we ditched it. I guess they only had so much of that stuff to go around."

"This should prove invaluable, Commander," Anderson said. "Well done." He took note of the pensive expressions and relaxed. "Go on," he told them. "Princess won't be out of the cerebonic lab for another few hours, and Dr Halloran says she'll be fine, but I doubt anybody's going to be able to keep the four of you away. Dismissed."

"Thanks, Chief!" Mark was already running, with Jason, Tiny and Keyop in his wake.

Anderson put the tip of Captain Doom's whip to one side and opened the folder on his desk again. He'd read it and re-read it while G-Force had been on their way home. Anderson stared at the page again, then took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He looked up at the sound of the door opening.

"You got the weapon?" Deirdre Kelly asked, leaning in the doorway. Galaxy Security's Director Intelligence walked in uninvited and picked up the articulated spike of Urgosium. "Wow," she commented. "This thing goes straight through armoured ceramalloy, huh?"

"I read your report on Captain Doom," Anderson said. "I want everything on file -- everything you have on this individual -- verified and reverified."

Deirdre Kelly frowned and put the metal spike back on Anderson's desk. "I know a lot of the intel's sketchy, David, but most of it's old news."

"Verified," Anderson repeated, putting his glasses back on, "and reverified, Dee."

"Surely you don't give any credence to those rumours that Doom is a rogue ISO operative with a grudge?" Kelly said. "Want to tell me what's going on?"

Anderson met Kelly's inquiring gaze with a look that didn't invite further questioning. "I want you to tell me that you're on it," Anderson said.

Kelly straightened. "Yes, sir. I'll put a team on it right away."

"Thank you, Director. Don't let me detain you any longer."

The door hissed shut behind Kelly's retreating back.

Anderson stared at the photograph of Captain Doom for a long moment. "You can't be him," he told it. "He's dead. I was there when we buried him." He closed the file, hand resting on the cover as though to keep the past locked in behind it. "You can't be."

"The gall," Zoltar hissed.

"It didn't pay off," Mala reminded her brother. "Captain Doom and the Urgosians suffered a resounding defeat."

"And now, what?" Zoltar demanded. "After everything we have done for them! With his base destroyed, how is Doom supposed to carry on supplying us with the matèriel we need?"

"It was his planetside base," Mala said, reading from the screen of her palm computer. "His fleet of corsairs remains intact. If anything, brother dear, he has more motivation than ever to plunder Federation interests."

"You are probably right," Zoltar said, subsiding. "Nonetheless, I think we should keep a close eye on this Urgosian upstart."

"Don't worry," Mala said, smiling. "We will."

"Don't say, 'I told you so,' Jason," Princess warned, her chagrin written plainly on her face. She was sitting in a recliner in the cerebonic lab, feeling vulnerable in a hospital gown and cotton bathrobe.

"Wasn't going to," Jason said.

The intravenous drip line leading to Princess' right elbow was almost lost amidst the monitor leads snaking out of the gown's neckline up to the computer unit on the IV stand. Her team-mates were gathered around her, their expressions a mix of relief and concern. Jason thought she looked small in the big chair with the equipment looming over her.

"You were right, though," Princess said. "You saw it coming, and I didn't."

"Miscalibration throws your judgement off," Jason pointed out.

"How do you know that?" Princess asked.

"Yeah?" Keyop chimed in. He folded his arms across his narrow chest and scowled up at Jason.

"I read the manual," Jason said. "They stick these things in our central nervous systems," he reasoned. "I for one want to know how they work."

"The main thing," Mark said, "is that we're all back home in one piece, and if Captain Doom wants any more of that indestructible metal, he's going to have to spend a long time digging."

"All of them?" Governor Arish stared, appalled, at his visitor.

"Nobody escaped the refinery," Doom said. His voice was thick with grief behind the mask. "Tierna, Elenie... Many of my people had their families living at the base... None of the children survived. There was a magma leak caused by the loss of the main electron generator. The power surges set off explosions throughout the complex, and a fistula in the geothermic power unit ruptured. We cannot even retrieve the bodies."

"My boy..." Arish shook his head, his eyes bright with moisture.

"Most of my pirates survived," Doom said. "The fighters, the crews... It was only the civilians who were trapped and killed." Doom's fists clenched at his side. "G-Force," he snarled, "killers of innocent children! I swear to you, Arish, they have not seen the last of me. It may take me a lifetime, but I will see Tierna and Elenie avenged. Even if it kills me!"

"Aye," Arish whispered. "Vengeance!"

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